CO: Juror Challenges Cause Mistrial In Cannabis Church’s Fight With Denver

Photo Credit: Lindsey Bartlett

Public cannabis-consumption citations from the City of Denver carry a maximum penalty of a $300 fine and rarely result in a longstanding legal battle, but most of the people issued such citations don’t claim religious persecution. On February 28, the case between the International Church of Cannabis and the city wound up in a mistrial in Denver County Court.

Church founders Steve Berke, Briley Hale and Lee Molloy appeared in a Denver courtroom on Wednesday, February 28, expecting a jury to decide if they were guilty of public cannabis consumption and violating the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act on April 20, 2017, during the church’s inaugural 4/20 event. However, the trial was unable to move forward after multiple jurors were excused for various reasons, and it was rescheduled nearly fifteen months after the date of the alleged misdemeanors.

Berke, Haley and Molloy were each issued citations months after the event occurred, according to Berke, who says undercover officers from the Denver Police Department infiltrated the church’s 4/20 event under false pretenses, and that none of the three founders had smoked cannabis in the church that day. In any case, the three contend the 4/20 event was private, and city’s charges are an attempt to push their establishment out of town.

“We would’ve won today,” Berke said after the mistrial was declared. “I think this is a travesty to the city and people of Denver to have to pay for this again.”

Several potential jurors questioned the amount of resources used to issue six citations to three individuals, hold a trial and bring in a half-dozen DPD officers to testify. Another vocally struggled with the idea of charging the church founders with social consumption while “hundreds of people do it” during shows at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, a property owned by the City of Denver. One man was excused because of his past career in law enforcement, while a pastor who admitted to consuming cannabis wondered if he could be fair because of his disdain for smoking pot in a place of worship.

Eventually, there were more jury challenges remaining for both sides than there were potential jurors remaining, and neither side would waive the potential to issue more challenges. The courthouse’s jury commissioner had inadvertently sent the rest of the jury pool home early, according to Judge Fred Rodgers, so he declared a mistrial and rescheduled the case for July 11.

Denver assistant city attorneys Casey Federico and Rebekah Watada had pushed the case for trial, charging the church founders with consumption as well as complicity, or enabling church visitors to consume in public. The defendants’ attorney, Warren Edson, said the complicity charges were a new twist to the city’s case, adding that he’d never seen that many jurors openly disagree with a city attorney’s theory on cannabis.

“Basically [the city attorneys] ran out of jurors that they think can be fair to the city,” Edson told reporters. “Hopefully this is a wake-up call for the city that this isn’t the open-and-shut matter that they think that it is.”

Using phrases like “disgraceful” and “religious persecution” to describe the charges, Berke says the city has sent up to ten undercover cops to church events since it opened in spring 2017. Officials with the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses and the City Attorney’s Office have publicly questioned the validity of the church’s religion, Elevationism, while claiming that some of its events have been both advertised and open to the public — charges the founders vehemently dispute.

The 4/20 event was considered the church’s first big shindig, with the last part of the day requiring a church membership and invitation to attend a private consumption ceremony, according to Berke and Molloy. DPD officers say they were allowed to enter the event without either, however, prompting the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act citations. Public consumption citations were only issued to the three founders, who claim that video evidence and witness statements show that none of them were smoking that day. The three admit that many of the attendees were smoking inside, though, and Edson believes that’s why the term “complicity” was brought up so often.

“Complicity is a county rule, not a municipal rule,” he explained. “That’s why this keeps bouncing back and forth.”

The International Church of Cannabis currently has 5,000 members, 2,000 of whom are located in the Denver area, according to Berke. Molloy says they will continue to hold their consumption-friendly ceremonies on Friday nights “for members only.”